The Godaiko Drummers, from Great Lakes Taiko Center in Novi, perform Japanese  taiko drumming in front of the Belle Isle Aquarium during the third annual Koi Festival May 4.

The Godaiko Drummers, from Great Lakes Taiko Center in Novi, perform Japanese taiko drumming in front of the Belle Isle Aquarium during the third annual Koi Festival May 4.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Belle Isle Aquarium celebrates koi fish, Japanese culture

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published May 14, 2019

 The Belle Isle Aquarium spotlights its koi fish each year and uses the  opportunity to celebrate Japanese culture and the annual Children’s Day holiday.

The Belle Isle Aquarium spotlights its koi fish each year and uses the opportunity to celebrate Japanese culture and the annual Children’s Day holiday.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Six-year-old Chloe Young, of Trenton, runs  with a souvenir koinobori windsock during the Koi Festival at Belle Isle May 4.

Six-year-old Chloe Young, of Trenton, runs with a souvenir koinobori windsock during the Koi Festival at Belle Isle May 4.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Local children feed koi fish during the Belle Isle Aquarium’s annual Koi Festival May 4.

Local children feed koi fish during the Belle Isle Aquarium’s annual Koi Festival May 4.

Photo by Brendan Losinski

DETROIT — Each year, the historic Belle Isle Aquarium hosts an outdoor celebration of its pond-dwelling koi fish and the nation of Japan from which they come.

“This is the third Koi Festival hosted by the Belle Isle Aquarium,” said Belle Isle Aquarium Director of Events and Communications Danielle Jackson. “Prior to 2017, there was an event we had every year called the Koi Transfer, where we would move the koi from the pond to the indoor tank in the fall, and then back to the pond in the spring. In 2017, the pond was winterized so the fish could live outside year-round. People loved the koi so much, though, that we wanted to keep that spirit alive.”

The aquarium kept that spirit going by embracing the koi’s Japanese heritage and combining the aquarium community’s love of the koi with the Japanese springtime celebration of Children’s Day.

“There’s a holiday in Japan called Children’s Day … and it’s on May 5 every year,” said Jackson. “In doing the Koi Festival, we correlated that with Children’s Day, so we have some traditional Japanese games kids can play and the koinobori flags flying, which are representative of Children’s Day. We wanted to connect the heritage of the koi fish, educate people about what that means in Japan and bring some activities here to help people understand.”

The event has been embraced by several Japanese cultural organizations in the Detroit area.

“We are hoping that we can spread the word that there is a community of Japanese here, and we enjoy sharing our cultural history and our heritage,” said Henry Tanaka, of the Japanese American Citizens League. “I think, in Detroit, one of the best things about the city is its diversity. For us to be able to come out and share our different cultures is great.”

Tanaka went on to say there is a vibrant Japanese American community in Detroit that many people don’t know about.

“Many of the Japanese Americans living in Detroit live here because there was a Japanese Internment Camp in World War II in Arkansas, and they dropped off many of the Japanese Americans in the camp after the war here because they didn’t have anywhere else to go; they lost their homes in California,” he said. “There’s a community here, and we are trying to foster that community here through civil rights efforts and keeping that Japanese heritage alive.”

Several other local organizations joined the Japanese American Citizens League by hosting traditional Japanese games and activities, bringing art and artifacts, and performing demonstrations of cultural activities or art styles.

“Today we’re lucky to have some partners from the local Japanese community,” Jackson said. “We have the Japan Society of Detroit Women’s Club doing some traditional storytelling, and they’re also showing off some traditional clothing. We have the Japanese American Citizens League doing a craft. We have the Pewabic street team doing some raku firings — raku is the Japanese version of clay firing. We’re feeding the koi fish, we have a taiko drumming performance and we have some games in the tent.”

“We’ve invited the Japanese consulate here, as well as the Japan Business Society of Detroit, and we are working together to collaborate on this event,” added Tanaka. “We’re doing origami and putting on some workshops here for the families. We’re also helping with the storytelling programs as well. … I think what we’re centering on is programs for children. We’re not overwhelming anyone, and we’re just trying to introduce people to the basics of Japanese culture.”

Koi fish hold a special place in Japanese culture as a symbol of endurance and perseverance, which Jackson said makes it a potent symbol for the Detroit community as well.

“The koi fish symbolizes perseverance,” she explained. “They swim upstream, so they stand for having determination to tackle the things they’re facing. I think that’s important for everybody. That’s why they’re so important in Japan.”

She said that getting to combine the aquarium’s love of koi fish while engaging the community on a beautiful spring day is the kind of event that Belle Isle loves to host.

“Education is really important to us, and we always want to try to keep reaching out to the community,” said Jackson. “I think it’s an important lesson for the Detroit community. ... With the symbolism of the koi fish (regarding perseverance) and the changes happening in the city, it’s an important reminder for us to push forward. There are a lot of positive changes going on on the island right now as well.”

Call Staff Writer Brendan Losinski at (586) 498-1068.